When will it be safe to go back to the office?

Social Distancing at the Office.Workers Working with Mask, Side view ,talking , flat design illustration vector

Today’s BBC investigation into Covid within the office workspace highlights a major problem facing organisations right now.

According to the BBC 5 Live Investigations team, data from Public Health England reveals more than 500 Covid outbreaks, or suspected outbreaks, in offices in England in the second half of 2020 – more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafés combined. Plus, there have been over 60 suspected outbreaks in English offices in the first two weeks of the current lockdown.

Contact centre operators face a particularly tough challenge. In its article, the BBC team highlighted the continuing struggles of one particular contact centre that has stayed open throughout the pandemic – and there have been many other examples.

In April 2020, it was reported that 44% of workers on one floor in a South Korean contact centre contracted the coronavirus. In July, it was widely reported that a Test & Trace centre in Glasgow recorded a number of positive cases. And in December, the PCS union claimed 500 workers had contracted the virus at a DVLA centre in Wales.

It’s no surprise that call centres are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks as this floor plan, published by Business Insider Australia, illustrates http://bit.ly/39u30j3

Bricks and Mortar contact centres are, by their very nature, heavily populated, and personal space has always been an issue. Pre-Covid guidance from the Health and Safety Executive recommends that personal space should be as follows:

“The total volume of the room, when empty, divided by the number of people normally working in it should be at least 11 cubic metres. In making this calculation a room or part of a room which is more than 3.0m high should be counted as 3.0m high. The figure of 11 cubic metres per person is a minimum and may be insufficient if, for example, much of the room is taken up by furniture etc.”

Many contact centres however clearly don’t adhere to the 11 cubic metre guidance and, besides, that recommendation was issued pre-Covid.

So what are centres expected to do in the absence of a new ‘acceptable number’? Nick Floyd, the Managing Director of callcentrefurniture.com, a space planning and furniture supply business, advises companies above all to be sensible.

“If pre-lockdown there were 30 people working in a large room, post-lockdown that number needs to come down, maybe to half” he says, “and organisations need to install high perspex screens between people. It’s also not just a question of just what employers want to do any more. What employees are comfortable with is more important than ever.”

There’s no doubt that some people are desperate to get back to the office. However the old office can’t be the new normal. Greater social distancing will necessarily mean less people able to fit into the same space – and that means more homeworking for the foreseeable future for most centres.

The question is ‘what will that look like?’ Will it be 100% work-from-home (WFH) or some version of hybrid homeworking, whether that be 100% WFH for some and 100% office for others, part-time WFH for all, or the appointment of a third party homeworking outsourcer to supplement office-based personnel to maintain service levels. The end of lockdown will not be the end of the office versus WFH debate.

To access the Government guidance on “Social distancing to make your workplace COVID-secure” go to https://www.hse.gov.uk/coronavirus/social-distancing/index.htm

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